The laws of war: Proportional to what?

A brief, yet poignant summary of the current state of the laws of war as it plays out in the latest round of war. I think Israel has taken great pains to be as open and specific about their targeting practices as possible during this round; clearly more discriminating in targeting and the use of weapons than against Hezbollah 2 years ago. Obviously, the same can’t be said for Hamas; but there’s another problem. As a non-state actor, Hamas is not technically bound by the treaty portions of jus in bello. While the customary principles may be applicable, one would still need to charge Hamas individuals that target civilians through either an ad hoc process or through the ICC (although this is probably outside the mandate of the ICC’s charter) Either way, the article is correct in stating that “The arguments are over the nebulous facts of a particular incident”; and I would expect more of the same from both sides in the conflict.

The rights and wrongs of killing civilians

IN THE arithmetic of death, the latest fight between Israel and Hamas has been an unequal contest: more than 350 Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes in the first four days, many of them civilians, against four Israelis killed by Hamas’s rockets. But does such one-sided bloodshed make Israel guilty of using “disproportionate force”, as argued by, among others, Amnesty International and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, just ending his six-month presidency of the European Union?

Proportionality is intimately bound up with notions of the just war, and has been enshrined in treaties regulating warfare’s conduct since the Hague Convention of 1907. But familiar as it is, proportionality is a slippery idea. It has two different meanings in Western theory. On the grounds for going to war, jus ad bellum, the cause must be important enough to justify force; any good that will follow must outweigh the inevitable pain and destruction. In the conduct of war, jus in bello, any action must weigh the military gain against the likely harm to civilians.

Human-rights law has developed mostly in terms of jus in bello. The Geneva Conventions of 1949, dealing mainly with the protection of non-combatants in conflicts between states, were updated in 1977 to include more explicitly wars within states. Israel and the United States have not ratified the later protocols, though they do not really question the principle that armies must avoid “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.

The arguments are over the nebulous facts of a particular incident. Did Israel do enough to avoid civilian deaths? Do Palestinian policemen count as combatants? For Israel, the use of overwhelming force is both legitimate and, given its desire to restore its “deterrent effect” towards its enemies, sometimes necessary. Israel says that intent is what matters: it says it tries to avoid civilian deaths, whereas Hamas deliberately seeks to kill Israeli civilians with its rockets, relatively ineffective as they may be. Hamas responds with two arguments: as the disproportionately weaker party, Palestinians must use the crude means at their disposal to free their lands from Israeli occupation; more controversially, it often says there are no Israeli civilians since most Israelis serve in the army.

Proportionality in jus ad bellum and jus in bello are hard to separate: indiscriminate killing will colour the view of whether a war is justified; and even proportionate actions in battle will be denounced if the war is deemed unjust. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, arguments about legality fast turn into ones about history. If the tit-for-tat starting point is Hamas’s rocket attacks, then the Israelis have a right to defend themselves; if it is Israel’s occupation of Palestine or the dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was born in 1948, then Palestinians can argue for a right to resist. Proportional or not, the killing of innocents will go on until the dispute is settled.”

The Economist

About Charlie Gleek

Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies and graduate instructor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University. My work takes place around intersections of postcolonial literature, quantitative literary analysis, and digital humanities.

Posted on 30/12/2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The laws of war: Proportional to what?.

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